Okay, you'll all be keen to hear, this morning, how Than Geoff responded to the big question I had been mulling since I woke yesterday: Is religion necessary? I was nervous about asking it for two reasons. First, I tend one of the more vociferous members of the group and invariably have a lot of questions on my mind, and often find myself holding back for fear of hogging time when others might be wanting to step in. And secondly, as I thought about my question during the day, I began to realize that I had asked the same one many times throughout the years, though perhaps in different forms. As I noted yesterday, it springs in part from a long-held emotional aversion to religion that I find hard, if not impossible to shake; and in part from an intellectual skepticism that doubts the existence of a God or a life after death that I have always thought to be the basis of all religions, including--as to the latter--Buddhism.
So what did Thanissaro Bhikkhu have to say? It depends, he said, on your definition of religion, and the definition that he offered will come as a no-surprise surprise to many, as it was to me: religion, as he sees it, is quite simply the pursuit of true happiness. Not happiness. True happiness. Because happiness in the forms in which most of us seek it--material comfort, sexual satisfaction, family, and so on--is the kind that can be taken from us at any moment by the whims of fate. Wealth can evaporate, those close to us can die, we ourselves can be stricken with disease of injury... But no, nothing can deprive us of true happiness, as Than Geoff defines it for us, because it's an inner happiness--one that does not depend others, nor take anything from them. It's the kind of happiness, indeed, that gives us the freedom to be present for others without reservation, since we have nothing to lose and everything to gain from theirs.
I followed up with questions arising from my own understanding of religion--that it requires belief in "transcendence" of some kind, in something beyond the brief span of life between birth and death, a metaphysical dimension that cannot be validated by science or human reason, or even by human experience, but only by faith. Than Geoff was gently insistent in shifting these notions to one side and returning to the simple, pragmatic, experiential view. Asked by another questioner what were the basic tenets of Buddhism as a religion, he was equally uncomplicated in his response: they all boil down to the single belief, he said, that our actions have consequences, and that their quality depends on the quality of our intention in making them.
I asked about skepticism: does it promote unhappiness? Again, a carefully balanced response, to the effect that yes, of course, on the one hand, used unskillfully, it can have that result; but used skillfully, it's an essential ingredient of Buddhist faith, since the Buddha himself taught us to question everything. I asked whether he had read any of the recent books on atheism, and he responded with an amusing story about a nightmare encounter with Sam Harris, in a telephone conference that was to have been published, when Harris immediately went on the attack: religion, he said, was the belief in anything that could not be proved by human reason. End of conversation. Than Geoff decided early on in the interview, he said, that it was absurd to be dragged into that argument.
The subject of prayer came up, along with the question about whether it was based in fear; and remembering that old adage that "there are no atheists in foxholes," I asked Than Geoff what he thought about the human need to turn to some external power or authority in life or death situations, where fear predominates--but another member of our group interjected, without hesitation and with real passion in his voice: "I WAS an antheist in a foxhole." No arguing with a man with that experience behind him. As for atheism, well, we moved on to other topics. A good discussion, though, and I was glad to have raised the issue. I'd be interested to hear responses from readers: Is religion necessary?